FBI's New $1b Project Will Track People By Just Their Faces

How would you feel if the government could easily track your movements by automatically identifying your face on images captured by the ever-growing network of CCTV of cameras in the US? The FBI will be able to do just that very soon thanks to its $US1 billion Next Generation Identification program.

The FBI has been pursuing its new people-identification project for years now, working with both Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions and IBM.

The Bureau argues that the project's goal "is to reduce terrorist and criminal activities by improving and expanding biometric identification and criminal history information services through research, evaluation, and implementation of advanced technology." That's all good in my book, although I have my doubts about its actual efficacy for new criminals.

But while it's all good to have modern systems and faster identification of criminals, there are other biometric parameters that may be easily abused. Chief among them: facial identification.

The FBI and its collaborating administrations would be able to apply facial identification to any image source. Using a much more sophisticated version of the technology found in Facebook or iPhoto, law enforcement agents would be able to quickly go through catalogues of mugshots, images of tattoos, or even street photos in search of specific individuals. And that includes an expansive network of CCTV cameras that dot landscapes and street corners across the United States.

While it's not quite science-fiction movie material just yet, you can be sure that this is where it's going. Older video cameras had neither the resolution nor the connectivity to work with a centralised, sophisticated facial-recognition system. But this has changed fast: ultra-cheap, inexpensive HD cameras are now being installed everywhere.

The New York subway system alone now has 3700 security cameras online -- that's a network you can't escape unless you wear a balaclava. Of those 3700 cameras, 507 provide live feeds to NYPD's Command Center from Grand Central Station, Penn Station and Times Square. And that number is growing.

The US government has been pushing for these networks for some time now. In 2009, state and local administrations were given $US300 million "to fund an ever-growing array of cameras". While it's not at the same level as the UK, where there is an estimated one CCTV camera per 14 citizens, it's impossible to get around without being watched -- or at least feeling like you're under constant surveillance.

Combine this with laser scanners that can detect any material -- even the contents of your breakfast -- in any public place and you will have the perfect storm.

1984 is arriving a little late, but it's coming. [FBI via TNW, Wired, NY MTA]

Image: Shutterstock/Pyndurin Vasily